Section 7. Worker Rights
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, provides for workers to receive up to six months’ salary as compensation for illegal dismissal, and provides for the right of the employee to demand reinstatement for such dismissal. Workers alleging discrimination based on union affiliation can file complaints with the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination. According to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, despite the constitutional recognition of the right of association, the law did not provide for it, which prevented parties to a dispute from seeking redress in administrative court.
There are some limitations on these rights. The law prohibits Interior Ministry judicial system unions from membership in national union federations. When employers and labor unions reach a collective agreement at the sector level, they must obtain the agreement of the minister of labor to extend it to cover all enterprises in the sector. The law prohibits most public servants from engaging in collective bargaining. The law also prohibits employees of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the State Agency for Intelligence, the National Protection Service, the courts, and prosecutorial and investigative authorities from striking. Those employees are able to take the government to court to provide due process in protecting their rights.
The law gives the right to strike to other public service employees, except for senior public servants, such as directors and chief secretaries. The law also limits the ability of transport workers to organize their administrative activities and formulate their programs. Labor unions stated that the legal limitations on the right to strike and the lack of criminal liability for employers who abuse their workers’ right of association are contrary to the constitution.
Authorities did not always respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Labor unions continued to report cases of employer obstruction, harassment, and intimidation of employees, including relocation, firing, and demotion of union leaders and members. Labor unions also alleged that some employers obstructed negotiations or refused to bargain in good faith or adhere to agreements. According to labor unions, health-care employers did not adhere to the 2018 collective bargaining agreement, which provides minimum salary rates. In August the Acibadem City Clinic, Tokuda Hospital in Sofia, fired nurse Maya Ilieva, a union leader at the hospital, who led a series of protests complaining of low pay and difficult working conditions. According to Ilieva, the union federation colluded with hospital management, refusing to support her against her dismissal.
The government did not effectively enforce the labor law, and penalties were generally insufficient to deter violations. The law does not effectively protect against interference by employers in labor union activities. In its annual labor rights report issued in April, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that authorities often covered up violations of the right of association and presented them as labor disputes.
Judicial and administrative procedures were adequate in settling claims. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that employers broke the law and eroded the value of collective bargaining by letting nonunion members take advantage of the provisions in the collective agreement.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
There were some reports of families or criminal organizations subjecting children to forced work (see section 7.c.). According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, “children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft.” As of October authorities registered 56 cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor exploitation, noting a significant increase from 2017. NGOs claimed government mechanisms for identifying victims among at-risk groups, such as asylum seekers, were not sufficiently robust.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations, but children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Romani children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, tourism, retail, and domestic work.
The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 and the minimum age for dangerous work at 18. The government considered occupations hazardous for children if they are beyond their physical or psychological abilities, expose them to harmful agents or radiation, have a harmful effect on their health, take place in conditions of extreme temperature, noise, or vibration, or expose children to hazards that they cannot comprehend or avoid due to their incomplete physical or psychological development. To employ children younger than 18, employers must obtain a work permit from the government’s General Labor Inspectorate. Employers can hire children younger than 16 with special permits for light work that is not risky or harmful to the child’s development and does not interfere with the child’s education or training. The General Labor Inspectorate was generally effective in inspecting working conditions at companies seeking and holding child work permits and applying sanctions regarding child labor in the formal sector. The inspectorate reported a 62 percent increase in legal child employment, mainly due to a lack of better-qualified workers and an increase in job openings in the tourist industry. In 2018 the inspectorate uncovered 116 cases of child employment without prior permission.
The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounted educational campaigns, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.
NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries (particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution, pickpocketing, and the distribution of narcotics).
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, age, social origin, language, political and religious beliefs, membership in labor unions and civil society organizations, family and marital status, and mental or physical disabilities. Although the government usually effectively enforced these laws, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across all sectors of the economy with respect to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and minority status. According to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the majority of discrimination complaints received during the year related to employment, predominantly concerning persons with disabilities. The commission cited cases in which employers changed their attitude towards an employee with a disability, resorting to workplace harassment, pushing the employee to quit, and intentionally creating mobility obstacles.
The government funded programs to encourage employers to overcome stereotypes and prejudice when hiring members of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities.
The law requires the Interior Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, and the State Agency for Technical Operations to allot 1 percent of their public administration positions to persons with disabilities. Enforcement was poor, however, and the agencies were not motivated to hire persons with disabilities, citing inaccessible infrastructure, lack of sufficient funding for modifying workplaces, and poor qualifications by the applicants. The Center for Independent Living and other NGOs criticized the system of evaluating persons with disabilities based on the degree of their lost ability to work, which effectively prevented many persons with disabilities who were able to work from having a job.
The law requires equal pay for equal work. In July the Council of Ministers reported that men received 13.6 percent more pay than women for work in the same position. According to the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination, there were twice as many men as women with well-paid jobs and women were more frequently subjected to workplace discrimination than men. As a result of the gender pay gap, according to the National Social Security Institute, women received 38 percent lower pensions.
Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem. Locating work was more difficult for Roma due to general public mistrust, coupled with the Roma’s low average level of education. According to the National Statistical Institute, 68.3 percent of Roma lived in poverty, compared with 31.6 percent of Turks and 15.6 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.
The national minimum wage was lower than the government’s official poverty line. In November the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 72.5 percent of households lived below the poverty line.
In 2018 the General Labor Inspectorate reported that the cases of unpaid wages declined by 1 percent, compared with the previous year. According to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria, the small decline reflected the ineffectiveness of 2018 changes in the law that gave the General Labor Inspectorate authority to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against employers who owed more than two months’ wages to at least one-third of their employees for three years.
The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law prohibits overtime work for children younger than 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that employers increasingly “disrespected employees’ working hours and free time” and criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers.
A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard work week. The General Labor Inspectorate had a sufficient number of inspectors to enforce wage and hour laws, and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.
Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, less than 50 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years had increased compliance, with 97 percent of inspected companies in compliance with occupational safety and health requirements, demonstrating that penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the gray-market economy, which, according to the International Labor Organization, involved 15.9 percent of the country’s workforce. The government, employer organizations, and labor unions agreed that the gray economy had continued to shrink over the previous four years. In June the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria called for legal protections for whistleblowers providing information about employers that evade paying taxes and social security.
Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first six months of the year decreased by almost 10 percent over the same period the previous year. Land transportation violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Approximately 95 percent of the companies inspected in 2018 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of them had programs for elimination of the identified risks.
There were 33 work-related deaths as of July, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors.